People Are Our Greatest . . . um . . . Assets?


People are our greatest assets! Right? Well I certainly hope not! I think that there are at least three reasons why seeing people as assets might not be such a good idea:

  1. We tag assets and then put security measures in place so that no-one steals them. If we think of people as assets, we run the risk de-humanizing humans. We say it's not OK to do this in other domains such as the glamour industry or our own corporate social investment activities. But if this is the height of organizational attitude to people, I suspect that people will begin to behave like assets and work within the mechanistic parameters as specified for the asset.
  2. We sweat assets. Anything less that 100% efficient use of an asset does not make economic sense. "It's Friday 5pm - what do you mean everyone's gone home already? Hey, I paid for a full 8 hours, and I expect at least a little more than that - don't they realize that a career limiting move that is?"
  3. We depreciate assets and then sell them, or write them off.This is good for physical assets, but not so good for people. Does a human soul really have that little value? Practically speaking, people-performance varies and sometimes for the sake of the-many, an organization cannot sustain salary expenses. But the problem is really much deeper than that . Some leaders have this notion that having spent time and money in recruitment, on-boarding and training there is a break-even point at which time they have made enough money back to justify their expendability.

I suggest that we continue the trend of thinking of "Human Capital" instead. Some economists may argue that all capital is in the form of an asset, and that may well be true but it does provoke a question - is capital not a higher form of asset for which a different mindset is needed? I think there are at least three reasons why using the term Human Capital is better than People Assets (and this is not merely a question of selecting a less pejorative synonym - there is a deep worldview implication for attaching this alternative label):

  1. We try to preserve capital. When bank balances decrease, or stock portfolios take a hit, or gold reserves come under pressure there is a flurry of boardroom activity to correct this untenable position. I contend that the human soul, mind and body should attract the same level of attention when it is noticed that a decline is looming. I think that we have a moral responsibility to do so. Pay well. Treat people with respect and empathy.
  2. We try to grow capital. Sadly, whilst this dictum is applied in theory, human capital, environmental capital, natural resource capital are all falling foul of the short-term profit gain delivered by gradual (and sometimes not so gradual) capital depletion. Train people. Encourage people to realize their full potential. Encourage holistic well-being.
  3. We insist on return on capital.  Before I am labelled a radical socialist, I must insist most strongly that, for the mutual benefit of the organization and its human capital, leaders must expect high performance and personal ownership. Capital preservation and growth can deliver this. Ask people to do meaningful work. Accept nothing less than the very best every person can achieve. Be open to what people have to offer.

Look in the mirror. Peer over the cubicle. Smile across the meeting table. What do see? Sunlight? Polar ice caps? Fertile soil? Coal seams? Replenishing rain forests? Clean air? Fresh water? It's all there - just look.